Uniting The Church – Is it Possible?

Partisanship in the church is not an obstacle to uniting the church. Closed mindedness to the other person and enmity is what is fatal if we are interested in uniting the church.

United Methodist Church (USA) – A Case Study

For many years the United Methodist Church (USA), hereafter the UMC, has been tearing itself apart over a range of issues. The most polarising issue at the moment is the one that it shares with many other churches – the place of LGBTIQ people in the life of the church. In some churches the issue is about whether LGBTIQ people can be members, or even Christians. For other churches it is about ordination or whether the church should conduct marriages or blessings of their love for one another.

In 2016 the UMC General Conference in Portland had the opportunity to talk together about this issue in a new, respectful and collaborative way. The meeting refused to use a new process. There were many reasons for this decision. However a major reason the new rule was not used was because people preferred to fight rather than co-operate. People wanted a fight so that they could defeat their opponents and vanquish them.  They cared less about each other than getting the votes. “To the victor the spoils” was the driving agenda of too many at that meeting.

Later in the meeting the General Conference established a Special Commission on the Way Forward. The aim of the Commission is to bring a plan to a special “called Conference” about how the church can overcome its incessant conflict, splits and the destructive effects on its mission. Tragically the Commission seems to have used the contemporary political approach of bringing the opposing parties together to cut a deal. Inevitably this approach will not succeed in uniting the church. Rather it will entrench the differences as side each jockeys for its agenda to succeed.

Uniting the church is not going to happen through encouraging partisanship and political game playing.  However, it is still not too late for the UMC to deploy an alternative method of respect and collaboration.

Uniting the church – a cynics view

There are many in the UMC, and other churches, who feel that the divide is too great and the enmity too strong to make respect and collaboration possible.

The argument runs

  • trust has been broken
  • with all the power in the opposing camps there is no middle ground
  • leaders get positions of power because they are hyper-partisan
  • bias in communications is so strong there is no room for a middle voice
  • with opposing world views clashing, it’s impossible to respect the other
  • every discussion is framed as a binary “yes” / “no” choice
  • don’t be so naive to think we can respect each other – you’ll get used

This cynicism is rife in many churches. So, in the face of divisions the idea of uniting Christians again seems like searching for the prospector’s lost reef of gold.

Let’s get realistic!

In the American context the churches face a particular challenge. Their political leaders have become more and more disrespectful of each other. The once encouraging ability to work “across the aisle” seems to have disappeared. Hyperbole, denigration and demonising of those with different views is standard discourse in politics and the media. Christians operating in this environment are at great risk of being infected with this poison. That’s a real problem and it needs to be taken seriously.

Fighting each other in the church is destructive of the church’s witness. People can see a political fight anywhere at any time. When they see Christians doing it then they will not hang around. When Christians tell me that it’s important to destroy their opponents so that the true Christian message can be preached I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. People are desperate to see love, experience community, and to receive respect. People are desperate to encounter in their experience of others the love, community and respect that God has shown humanity in Jesus Christ. The mission of God through the church is undermined when Christians prefer fighting to loving one another.

To fight each other in order to gain the spoils of victory will result in a pyrrhic victory. The cost of a victory delivered through lies, power plays and political deals costs the victor so much that it is really a loss. So often we forget that the way we reach a decision can be as important as the decision itself.

Finding a way past hyper-partisanship is the only hope for the church.  Uniting and peace are possible for the church. The alternative of division and discord is depressing and defeatist.

Being realistic includes:

  • resisting the power of local culture as it seeks to shape the character of Christian communities
  • grieving over the way that Christians fighting pushes people away from the Christian faith
  • recognising that the way we win can cause more harm than good
  • continuing on the hyper-partisan route is hopeless
  • Christians are a people of hope who have the promises of God about what our future can look like
  • we have the Holy Spirit with us so that we do not lose the way

What are the options

1.   Treat each other as sisters and brothers

See each other first as sisters and brothers in Christ. Avoid the temptation to demonise each other. Yes that is a real act of will. Actually it is an act of faith too! Do you have faith that God has made us family? If so what are you going to do about that when you disagree with someone?

2.   Talk to each other about your faith

In the last 20 years one of the great movements of the Holy Spirit in uniting Christians has been the Global Christian Forum. Pentecostal, Evangelical and Catholic Christians were not members of established national and international ecumenical bodies. In the case of Pentecostals and Evangelical Christians it was because they saw ecumenical Christians as theologically liberal and politically “progressive”.

Catholics and the other groups have had significant levels of enmity. Catholics considered that these churches were proselytising their members. Many Evangelicals and Pentecostals did not regard Catholics as Christians. Their leaders attacked each other and distrusted them.

In the face of these harsh realities uniting these groups seemed impossible. The Global Christian Forum was established to address these issues. It’s methodology is very simple – meet each other as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ. The structure of their fellowship is for people to share the stories of their faith – how they came to it, what nurtures it, what they hope for because of their faith.

3.   Learn from groups that are uniting their communities

I have just started reading the latest book by Mark Gerzon The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. Mark is a mediator and an expert on political bridge building.

In the book he takes a realistic view of the obstacles to co-operation that exist in the American political context. He tells exciting stories about grass roots action for change. Mark Gerzon has biases. He prefers one candidate over another. One set of policies are viewed as better than others. However he has chosen not to be hyper-partisan in support for them. One key insight that makes this possible for him is that he has owned that he both liberal and conservative. Recognising that we are not monochrome, but are diverse in ourself, makes it possible to be comfortable with difference in others. The self talk we do as we explore our internal differences can be applied to the dialogue we have with others.

His four core strategies for uniting American citizens again across the partisan divide are:

  • reinventing citizenship
  • leading from across the borders that divide
  • championing the whole truth
  • serving the people

I highly commend The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. You can access a copy here. If you purchase anything through this link within 24 hours we receive a small commission. This helps us to cover the costs of this website.

4.   Apply consensus building resources in your church

Don’t just think about the problems – work on the solutions in your context. There are many simple things that you can do to change the culture and practices of your church. Use the tools that have been proven to be effective in uniting Christians.

This website is devoted to making resources available to people who want to do consensus building in their church. If you are newlease browse and find more support. For a comprehensive resource we recommend our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together. You can purchase a copy  from Cokebury here or from Amazon.

Conclusion

There are many conflicts in the church. Many seem intractable. However relationships can be turned around – uniting divided people is possible. The good news is that God is committed to the goal of uniting us as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us, faith to live out of, and many resources from inside and outside the church to resource us. Don’t give up!

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Author: Terence

I am a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. My current ministries focus on consultancy and teaching about consensus based decision-making, mediation, governance training and professional supervision for Ministers. I am co-author of the book "The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together". I live on the beautiful Far South Coast of NSW from where I undertake ministry across the globe. Contact me at terence@makingchurchdecisions.com

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